Kombucha: What is it, and what are its health benefits?

Glass and bottle of kombucha

You may have seen kombucha in grocery stores, at certain restaurants, or being promoted by influencers on TikTok. Its popularity is growing.

Nebraska Medicine nutritional therapist Megan McLarney, RD, LMNT, CDE answers some common questions students have about kombucha and fact checks this trending fad.

What is kombucha?

Kombucha is an ancient food dating back to as early as 220 B.C. It is a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. The resulting liquid contains vinegar, B vitamins, and a number of other chemical compounds. It is a fizzy, low-calorie beverage that comes in a variety of flavors. It's like a soda but also has a slight vinegar taste.

Kombucha can be found in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores. There are recipes online about how to make kombucha at home.

Some claim Kombucha can help prevent and manage serious health conditions, from blood pressure to cancer. Unfortunately, these claims aren't yet backed by scientific evidence. Valid medical studies of kombucha are limited. Some studies suggest that it may offer benefits similar to other probiotic foods like yogurt. These probiotic benefits include promoting a healthy immune system and relieving stomach and intestinal issues like diarrhea and constipation.

Is kombucha healthy?

Drinking kombucha is an easy, low-calorie way to add probiotics to your diet. It's also a good alternative for vegetarians or anyone who can't eat dairy.

Kombucha does contain small amounts of sugar and caffeine. As a fermented beverage, it also contains some alcohol. It's always important to read labels because the amounts of sugar, caffeine and alcohol in kombucha can vary. According to the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, most store-bought kombucha will have around 0.5% alcohol by volume. By comparison, a typical beer will have about 5% ABV. This means you would have to drink at least 10 servings of kombucha to equal the alcohol content of a single beer.

Is drinking kombucha safe?

If you're drinking kombucha that someone else has made,  remember that the alcohol content can vary greatly in homemade brews. There is also a risk of food poisoning, even with store-bought kombucha, because it does contain live, active bacteria cultures. That is why proper handling and storage are important. 

In general, it's probably safer to drink kombucha that you get from a trusted source rather than try to make your own. If you want to try home brewing, learn from an experienced brewer. Don't just follow any recipe you find on social media.

Anyone at high risk for food-borne illness should avoid foods containing raw forms of bacteria, including kombucha. This would include anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding. If you have a weakened immune system or have had a severe infection or surgery in your intestines, there is a higher risk that bacteria may pass through your gut and cause a blood or whole-body infection. 

For that reason, probiotic foods like kombucha aren’t recommended if you have "leaky gut," colitis or celiac disease. Also, someone who has unmanaged HIV or has had a transplant involving their gut should be cautious. In those cases, the safest way to get probiotics is from cooked sources such as sauerkraut.

What's the best way to add kombucha to my diet?

If you have specific health or dietary concerns, work with your doctor and a dietitian to determine the best way to add probiotics to your diet.

If you've never tried kombucha, start with a small amount and see how you feel after drinking it for a few days. If you like it, you'll get plenty of probiotics by drinking between 8 and 16 ounces per day.

When it comes to probiotics, one type of food isn’t recommended over others. Eating a variety is important to avoid super dosing with just one type of bacteria, which could create an imbalance.

If you find that you don't like kombucha, there are plenty of other probiotic foods to try including: yogurt, kefir, aged cheeses, kimchi, pickles, tempeh and sauerkraut, to name a few.

If you're concerned about adding new foods to your diet, the best place to start is by speaking with a registered dietitian. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule a nutrition counseling visit at Nebraska Medicine University Health Center with Sarah Keegan, MS, RDN, LMNT, CDCES. Students who pay student fees get their first nutrition counseling visit at no additional cost.